Prague was largely spared from the bombing that scarred other central European cities during World War II, but was attacked in error by the US Air Force on Feb. 14, 1945; many historic buildings were destroyed and several hundred Czechs were killed. The undulating, curvaceous Dancing House now stands on one of the former bomb craters, at the corner of a street overlooking the Vltava River. Designed by the architectural duo of Czech-Croatian Vlado Milunić and Frank Gehry (of Guggenheim Bilbao fame) and completed in 1996, the glass-and-concrete construction stands out among the city’s elegant Neo-Renaissance townhouses and was initially highly controversial in Prague for its extreme post-modern styling.
The St. Agnes Convent is a complex of 13th-century buildings and churches tucked away in a corner of Prague’s Old Town. Consisting primarily of the convent of the Poor Clares and the monastery of the Friars Minor, it represents the first example of a Gothic style of architecture in Bohemia, although part of the monastery was reconstructed in a Renaissance style in the 16th century. The complex was restored and renovated in the 1980 and began exhibiting the National Gallery’s collection of medieval and early Renaissance art in 2000. The collection includes art from the 13th to 16th centuries from Bohemia and central Europe, including more than 200 paintings, sculptures and other crafts. Works from the reign of the Luxembourgs and artwork associated with the rise of the Czech lands during the reigns of Vladislav and Ludwig Jagellon are considered national treasures.
The Jewish ghetto in Prague grew up in Josefov around the Old-New Synagogue, which was in use as early as 1270. It has the distinction of being oldest functioning synagogue in Europe – for over 700 years services were only halted during Nazi occupation between 1942–45 – and today it is once more the heart of Jewish worship in the city. A Gothic oddity, the whitewashed synagogue is topped with brick gables and its interior is starkly simple and little changed since the 13th century, with one prayer hall for the men and an adjoining gallery for women, who originally were only allowed to witness services from behind a glass screen. An elaborate wrought-iron grill encases the pulpit and the Torah scrolls are contained in a plain Ark on one wall.
Cutting a swathe through the Baroque beauty of Prague’s historic heart, Nerudova runs uphill through Malá Strana (Lesser Town), forming a link between Charles Bridge and Prague Castle on the west banks of the Vltava River. In the days of the Czech monarchy, the street formed part of the Royal Way, which the king followed from the Old Town Square to the castle on ceremonial occasions.
Now named after the famous 19th-century poet Jan Neruda, who lived at no. 47, the street is composed of brightly colored and gabled Baroque townhouses and palaces, dating from the 17th and 18th centuries and today bursting with boutique hotels, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants; as the street wends up towards the castle it becomes the province of several overseas embassies.
Originally called St. Nicholas Street, but renamed in 1926 to pay tribute to France for helping free the Czechs from Austria-Hungary during World War II, Paris Street is one of Prague’s most prestigious. Also called Parizska Street, it runs between the Old Town Square and the Cechuv Bridge. Lined with trees, it is home to some of the top designers in the world, including Louis Vitton, Hermes, Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Prada and Gucci. The street’s architecture is also an attraction, with examples of neo-Baroque neo-Renaissance and Secession styles. Buildings feature richly decorated balconies, elegant moldings, busts, statues, turrets and towers.
In addition to clothing boutiques and shops, Paris Street boasts some of the top makers of watches and jewelry, such as Rolex and Cartier. It is also home to some of the best restaurants and cafes in Prague, including Barock, widely considered the best restaurant in the city.
Prague's New Town Hall isn't as new as its name might suggest. It dates back to 1377 after Charles IV founded the New Town, and it served as the seat of municipal government until 1784. At that point, the building was converted into a criminal courthouse and prison. Today the New Town Hall building is a heritage center and is used for exhibitions, social events and weddings.
Not much remains of the original building from the 1300s, but today you can see additions and renovations from different periods in history. The Gothic tower, which was added in the 15th century, stands at almost 230 feet tall and offers visitors who climb the 221 stairs views of the New Town and Karlovo (Charles) Square. The south wing of the building was designed in a Renaissance style in the 16th century, and if you look closely, you'll notice a chain fixed to the building. This is from a time when the streets in Prague were closed off by chains.
There are dozens of places to honor fallen Jews in the city of Prague, but few are as iconic—or as striking—as the Pinkas Synagogue and nearby cemetery. Travelers who enter into the dark doors of Pinkas will find walls inscribed with the more than 77,000 Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, a stunning representation of the atrocity on a visual scale. At the front of the structure a list of concentration camps where men and women perished is listed and the Synagogue’s second floor showcases a small exhibit of moving children’s art.
The nearby burial site serves as the final resting place for some 20,000 Jews. Travelers can wander the well-worn path through 12 layers of graves that belong to famous rabbis, poets and scholars. Off-kilter stones worn by decades of weather serves as a reminder of all that was lost and provide a space of quiet contemplation for visitors.
The Prague Zoo is one of the best zoos in the world and aims to educate the public about wildlife while protecting the animals that live there. Many of the exhibits allow visitors to get up close and personal with the animals. Despite being in the middle of a city, there is lots of greenery at the Prague Zoo, making it a nice escape as well as a fun place to see a wide variety of animals. There are several areas geared towards children such as play areas, a petting zoo, and a viewing train.
Some of the more interesting animals you can see at the zoo include the Komodo dragon, western lowland gorilla, polar bear, honey badger, Galapagos tortoise, Malayan tapir, camel, kangaroo, southern cassowary, Malayan tiger, antelope, aardvark, Przewalski's horse, eastern black and white Colobus monkey, Steller's sea eagle, cape fur seal, Red River hog, giraffe, river stingray, Humboldt's penguin, lesser panda, rhinoceros hornbill, Asian elephant, and hippopotamus.
Franz Kakfka was born in Prague in 1883 in a home on the corner of Maiselova and Kaprova, next to the St. Nicholas Church. The original building was torn down years ago, although the door was preserved. A bust of Kafka and plaque now commemorate the site and a small museum has opened in his family home nearby. The Franz Kafka Exposition retells Kafka’s life using simple displays of pictures, quotes and a timeline. Also on display are first editions of several Kafka books, including a 1916 edition of the Metamorphosis. The exposition also features artifacts from Jewish life in Prague and a small gift shop sells Kafka related memorabilia.
Across the river in Prague, the Kafka Museum presents a multimedia exhibit of even more Kafka memorabilia, including photographs and original letters.
Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews first came to Prague in the 10th century and over the years they became a thriving part of the city’s cultural and financial community. Their first cemetery was located in Josefov, where most of Prague’s Jewish resident were required to settle; by the 1890s there were 23,500 Jews living in the city and the Old Jewish Cemetery was full. A new one was built in the suburb of Žižkov, many times bigger with capacity for around 100,000 graves; it is Art Nouveau in style, with imposing entrance gates, ornate mausoleums and majestic family tombs adorned with statuary and inscriptions. Its peaceful and orderly tree-lined avenues are a respite from the hectic street life of central Prague, although tragic reminders of World War II include a memorial wall inscribed with the names of the victims of the Holocaust who perished in Terezín concentration camp.